NATO and Finno-Swedish Neutrality


Aksel Isaksson is a third year student in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. As a staff writer for the Geopolitical Risk Society his past articles have focused on great power conflict and hydro politics. Academically, his interests are broadly grand strategy and contemporary Russia.


When the Defence Ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) met in Brussels in February 2020 two non-member states were represented. Swedish Minister for Defence, Hultqvist, and his Finnish counterpart, Kaikkonen, also participated in meetings.[1] When NATO was founded in 1949 it was a core pillar of America’s Cold War security strategy, serving as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and its satellites. As non-member partner states of NATO, Sweden and Finland cooperate closely with the security alliance. However, both countries maintain historically and geopolitically rooted non-alignment policies. The two Nordic nations formed a single state until 1809 and consequently share similar political cultures, retain close diplomatic ties, and coordinate security policy. Since the Cold War, NATO has expanded across Europe. Presently, the organisation counts 26 European countries among its member states. In this light, Sweden’s and Finland’s decision to remain outside the alliance is an anomaly. Against this background, this article makes a case for Nordic neutrality by examining its historic and geopolitical origins.


“Posterity stand here upon your ground and never rely on outside help.”[2]


The words adorn the wall of Sveaborg, a maritime fortress built on the coast of Helsinki in the eighteenth century and captured by Imperial Russia in 1808. However, the origins of Finno-Swedish nonalignment are best situated in twentieth century experiences. Whereas a policy of neutrality was forced on Finland after the Second World war, Sweden actively pursued nonalignment.[3] In the mid-twentieth century, Finland found itself awkwardly located between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Ultimately, geographic realities and external pressure forced Finland into the defensive Winter War of 1939 and later the offensive Continuation War against the Soviet Union in 1941. Following these engagements, the victorious Soviet Union forced Finland to sign the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1948, which mandated Finnish adherence to an openly neutral foreign policy.[4] Meanwhile, Sweden successfully avoided war in the 1940s by pursuing a policy of neutrality. Therefore, observers like Bergqvist believe Sweden avoided NATO membership in 1949 because of positive experiences of neutrality.[5] However, geopolitical calculations also influenced the decision. Swedish participation in NATO during the Cold War would have threatened to provoke a more assertive Soviet foreign policy toward Finland as a countermeasure. Whereas their experiences of the Second World War differ markedly, both Sweden and Finland came out of the war committed to neutrality.


“From here the Swede is ill-protected: A city on this site, to thwart his purposes, shall be erected. For here we may, by Nature blessed, cut through a window to the West and guard our seaboard with conviction.”[6]


Pushkin’s nineteenth century narrative poem is an homage to St. Petersburg and a reminder of the eternal geopolitical realities of the Baltic Sea region. The geopolitics of Sweden and Finland have influenced their mutual decision to remain neutral. Most crucially, the proximity of Russia requires prudent statesmanship. Finland’s 1 340-kilometre land border with Russia limits Finnish ability to act without considering Russian interests. Likewise, Sweden’s aforementioned ambition to keep Finland free from excessive Soviet influence builds on a desire to avoid a land border with a historically hostile power.[7] As such, Finno-Swedish interests align – both aim to avoid unnecessary provocation of Russia. Russian aggression is not inconceivable. Russia repeatedly acknowledges, rather ominously, that its security calculous will change if Sweden and Finland approach NATO membership.[8] As Finland discovered during its twentieth century military engagements, it is ill positioned to receive aid from Western Europe. Currently, the same geographic reality is true for the Baltic States. Finno-Swedish concern about NATO obligations to defend these three nations strengthens the nonalignment argument.[9] From a realist perspective, the geography of Northern Europe makes Sweden and Finland crucial to the regional balance of power. If Sweden joins NATO, the alliance will dominate the Baltic Sea and have unhindered access to its enclave on the eastern Baltic shore. Meanwhile, if Russia controls the area it threatens European NATO members from the north and significantly limits NATO’s ability to guarantee the defence of Baltic territory. These geopolitical realities contribute to the Nordic rationale for continued neutrality.


“Even so, without the help in arms and equipment and volunteers which Sweden and the Western Powers have given us, our struggle would have been inconceivable against the countless guns, tanks and aircraft of the enemy.”[10]


In 1940, Field Marshall Mannerheim made this conclusion in his final ‘Order of the Day’ of the Winter War. Enduring neutrality builds on historical institutionalism and realist calculations.[11] Past experiences motivate investment in sovereign defence capabilities in both Sweden and Finland. Furthermore, geopolitical considerations have amplified historically rooted cooperation. Therefore, the mutual policy of the countries is that either both join NATO or neither state does.[12] Since Sweden and Finland share similar security challenges they have also cooperated bilaterally since 2015 and liaised in organisations including Nordefco, the European Union (EU), the United Nations, and NATO.[13] Evidently, there is recognition that despite the engraving on Sveaborg, small countries like Sweden and Finland cannot confront modern security challenges in isolation. As such, Eellend argues that Sweden and Finland are not actually nonaligned. Both countries are EU members and have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Additionally, Sweden unilaterally proclaimed in 2010 that it would not be passive if a Nordic or EU country faces external aggression.[14] Given this reality, Sweden and Finland are perhaps better understood as militarily neutral in peacetime while politically aligned. Clearly, historical experiences and geopolitical realities have produced a pragmatic approach and a uniquely Nordic model for confronting security issues in the twenty-first century.


Finno-Swedish neutrality is rooted in history and geopolitics. However, their neutrality is more ambiguous than often presented. In practice, Sweden and Finland are politically aligned with the broader interests of the EU and NATO. A pragmatic neutrality has served the Nordic nations well so far. Nevertheless, it is worth considering for how long they can remain officially nonaligned in a twenty-first century environment where the gravity of global power is shifting, and major powers are turning their eyes toward the geostrategic importance of the Baltic region for the first time in a quarter of a century. Certainly, Finno-Swedish international commitments and foreign policy conduct conspicuously reveals where their loyalties truly lie.



Alternative Finland. “Mannerheim’s Final Order of the Day – 14 October 1940.” Accessed

March 3, 2020.

Bergqvist, Carl. “Determined by History: Why Sweden and Finland Will Not Be More Than

NATO Partners.” War on the Rocks, July 13, 2016.

Cottey, Andrew. “The European Neutrals and NATO: Ambiguous Partnership.”

Contemporary Security Policy 34, no. 3 (2013): 446-472.

Eellend, John. “Friends, But Not Allies: Finland, Sweden, and NATO in the Baltic Sea.”

Accessed March 3, 2020.

Försvarsmakten. “Försvarssamarbete med Finland.” Accessed March 4, 2020.

Government Offices of Sweden. “EU-NATO Cooperation at NATO Meeting in Brussels.”

Accessed March 4, 2020.

Pushkin, A. S. “The Bronze Horseman: A St Petersburg Story.” Accessed March 3, 2020.

Suomenlinna/Sveaborg. “King’s Gate.” Accessed March 3, 2020.


[1] Government Offices of Sweden. “EU-NATO Cooperation.”

[2] Suomenlinna/Sveaborg, “King’s Gate.”

[3] John Eellend, “Friends, But Not Allies.”

[4] Carl Bergqvist, “Determined by History,” War on the Rocks, July 13, 2016.

[5] Bergqvist, “Determined by History.”

[6] A. S. Pushkin, “The Bronze Horseman: A St Petersburg Story.”

[7] Bergqvist, “Determined by History.”

[8] Eellend, “Friends, But Not Allies.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alternative Finland. “Mannerheim’s Final Order of the Day – 14 October 1940.”

[11] Andrew Cottey, “The European Neutrals and NATO: Ambiguous Partnership,” Contemporary Security Policy 34, no. 3 (2013), 465-466.

[12] Eellend, “Friends, But Not Allies.”

[13] Försvarsmakten. “Försvarssamarbete med Finland.”

[14] Eellend, “Friends, But Not Allies.”

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